Charting new youth course with ABC for kids

Charting new course with ABC for kids

Part 1 of Becoming Sustainable

By Thomas Alley & others

For nearly two decades, squadrons around the country have been discussing the problem of organizational sustainability.

Two years ago, New York’s Seneca Sail & Power Squadron/6 decided to stop talking and start doing. In two parts, this article describes what happened when we followed one of our ideas from inception to execution.

Identifying the (Real) Problem
“Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.”

This quote from H. James Harrington, an expert in performance improvement in business and manufacturing, means that if you want to solve a problem, you need to objectively (i.e., quantitatively) describe it. To quantify a problem, you need to define it properly. To define a problem, you need to understand its core components.

So what exactly was our problem? We can find a possible root cause using another quality control technique known as the Five Whys.

Squadrons nationwide face a problem of sustainability.

Why? Our membership numbers are declining, and our volunteer base is stagnant.

Why? Our members, on average, are getting older, with little or no new blood flowing into our ranks.

Why? Younger people aren’t joining the squadron.

Why? The squadron does not offer things to interest younger families.

In New York State, boater safety cards can be issued to anyone 10 years and older, are required for boaters under 18, and are mandatory for almost any boater operating a personal watercraft.

Measuring the Problem
One reason for declining membership numbers is that squadrons do not offer things that interest younger families. Let’s say we develop something that interests them. How will we know? How can we measure whether we are successful?

Like most squadrons and the organization in general, Seneca has seen its membership decline. Simply maintaining our numbers and the critical mass needed to keep the squadron vibrant and active has been a challenge.

By downloading the squadron roster in DB2000 and charting the relevant demographics data, I found that the average age of our 75 members was a little over 55, even though almost 10 percent of our members are minors. We basically had two populations: grandparents and grandchildren. How do we get some adults (the missing generation) in the room with us?

For years we knew that our membership was getting older, but now we had numbers to back it up and a baseline to which we can compare future samples to gauge the progress of future efforts.

Seneca’s Strategic Plan
Squadron Commander Charlie Fausold began efforts to organize, formalize and plan a response to our atrophying membership. He assembled a cross-section of members into small teams to discuss various areas and brainstorm possible solutions. The resulting strategic plan framed and organized our responses and goals.

An important goal was getting younger members involved. We needed ways to attract adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s. This means not only targeting post-baby boomers (i.e., Gen-X, Gen-Y and Millennials) but also their children. Post-baby boomer families are busy. Think soccer moms and little league dads. The parents go where the children go and get involved in what their children do. Because early attempts to attract parents directly weren’t successful, the logical second choice was to target parents indirectly by offering programs that interested and attracted their offspring.

America’s Boating Course for Youth
Our squadron serves an area in which at least three local counties offer free boater safety courses through their respective sheriff’s departments, with overtime for instructors being paid for by state grants. As a result, the sheriff’s classes have been full, and the squadron courses have been empty for several years running. We approached the sheriff’s office to see if they were open to collaboration and were politely, but firmly, dismissed.
While researching possible collaboration, we got some useful feedback from the public: A number of parents lamented the lack of boater safety courses geared toward youth. In New York State, boater safety cards can be issued to anyone 10 years and older, are required for boaters under 18, and are mandatory for almost any boater operating a personal watercraft. Since the sheriff’s classes do not accommodate children well, the potential audience became our targeted demographic.

America’s Boating Course and its exam were designed for adults. Although we couldn’t alter the course or exam, we could change the way we presented it to increase the students’ retention. So in spring 2013, the squadron put together a pilot program aimed at children 12 to 16.

The dynamic format has proven successful at holding students’ attention for two or three hours at a time. Our instructors use teaching methods that appeal to different learning styles and reinforce concepts via different mechanisms.

Think back to the basics of USPS instructor training:

  • Tell them.
  • Show them.
  • Have them do it.
  • Have them show someone else.

Engage different senses and different learning styles (aural, visual and tactile) to compliment and reinforce the retention. Get students out of their chairs so they stay attentive and create more vivid memories of the concepts being communicated. Make the experience fun. (This works for adults, too!)

We tried to use the appropriate tools for the subject matter:

  • PowerPoint slides for facts, figures or data that has to be memorized
  • Show and tell where appropriate; examining, touching or wearing items such as life jackets, VHF radios and signaling devices brings them to life.
  • In-class, hands-on demonstrations for such things as learning how to tie a knot.
  • Role-playing; wearing red and green navigation lights, students walk around the room to get familiar with COLREGS and proper behavior when meeting, crossing or overtaking one another
  • Competition. We used a game show format to review information. We formatted PowerPoint slides using the “Jeopardy!” game show style. We invited parents to audit the class and participate with their children. This exposed the parents to the squadron. Every parent who attended the course has joined the squadron as a family unit without intensive recruitment.

We didn’t just take students for a ride; we let them take the helm and drive. After all, that’s what they’ll be allowed to do with the card we give them, right?

In New York, children as young as 10 can take the test for their boater safety card; however, the written exam is nearly impossible for children of this age to comprehend at the level needed to pass it. We address this in several ways. First, we speak with parents to gauge whether their child is sufficiently motivated to study the material and to ensure that parents will be there to help their children prepare for it. (This is when we suggest the parents audit the course with their child.)

Second, our squadron insists on having a qualified person read the exam to younger students. (We have elementary school teachers in our squadron who volunteer to do this.) The results have been dramatic: a 100 percent pass rate.

Third, if the parents aren’t sure of their child’s ability, we offer a no-risk option to sit through the course for free and then only pay if they decide to take the exam. To date, everyone who has audited the class has opted to take the exam and passed! A testament to our instructors and the program they have developed!

Another key component is our on-the-water segment of the course. We didn’t just take students for a ride; we let them take the helm and drive. After all, that’s what they’ll be allowed to do with the card we give them, right? We use the exercise to review concepts discussed in class and to reinforce the thought process and mental checklist to ensure safe vessel operation. While underway, we continuously review rules of the road to remove remaining abstractions. Students are responsive to the coaching of our on-the-water instructors.

After the success of our pilot program, our ABC team reviewed their experiences, made some minor adjustments and repeated the program in 2014 with similar results. We plan to create a full-scale public program in 2015 with marketing and advertising help from the squadron public relations officer.

In the Fall 2015 issue, part two of “Becoming Sustainable” will look at how Seneca Sail & Power Squadron plans to retain these new members.


Lt/C Tom Alley, SN, of Seneca Sail & Power Squadron/6, has been a USPS member since the late ’80s when he got serious about sailing. He served as squadron educational officer for both Niagara and Seneca squadrons. Tom and his family sail a 1965 Alberg 35 sloop, Tomfoolery, and are active racers and cruisers with the Finger Lakes Yacht Club in Watkins Glen, New York. This article was written with significant input from Seneca members P/C Charles Fausold, SN; 1st/Lt Jim McGinnis, P; Kathryn Alley, P; and Rolf Lewis, AP.

Share this story